“You have to go see…” John’s mother, Tanya, sat at the kitchen table with a cup of  coffee in hand. Although, the drink seemed less of a want and more of a habit by the way she simply cradled it, giving no attention to the steam or its quickly cooling temperature. She stared ahead, deep in a trance. “Why is no one picking him up?” she mumbled.  

Since John had moved back in with his mother, since his son’s accident, he had seldom seen her like this. Shaken, but not shaken like she was after a funeral or as if she was about to attack someone who had slighted her; this was different. As though she were witnessing a nightmare too horrific to wake from. Her demeanor frightened him, and he didn’t know whether  to hug her or start packing their bags. “What happened?” John asked.  

The words seemed to pass over her head.  

“Mom, what happened?” he asked again, voice infested with the beginnings of panic that was growing in his chest.  

She finally turned to him. “What? Oh—” She hesitated, and her eyes grew distant, staring through him. “On my morning walk, he was out there, just laying there.”  

“Who was out there?”  

“Your father,” she said.  

The words dazed him. Almost as though they never entered his ears at all and instead circled his head pecking and attacking in a storm of anger. His father was gone, long gone. Gone so long that John had never had a moment where he entertained his return. That was a lie. But his father’s absence was a way of life, not real, not concrete in any way. A father that was more of a  ghost. He couldn’t…  

“You saw Dad?”  

She swallowed, hard. And still she had not taken a sip from her drink. His mother only nodded in return.  

“Where?” he asked.  

“He was out in that field, south of town,” she said absently. “The one where I always walk.”  

John hesitated. “What did he say?”  

His mother seemed to take stock of John for the first time, and as her mind worked in the silence, her eyes seemed to grow visibly more absent. “He—he was dead, John. Why wasn’t anybody picking him up? I got away… but I didn’t, did I?” Her eyes then grew wide. “How could they not know? Maybe I was the first to find… Oh, God…”  

His mother’s confession settled John, surprisingly. The unknown, the infinite possibilities of events that had stricken his mother to an arrested shock had begun to swirl in his mind, and the fear that accompanied those thoughts was growing into chaos. But his father, dead, however  unexpected, was not totally unforeseen. The idea that he might turn up in the obituaries in some neighboring town or tagged in a distant relative’s social media post was a certainty that John took for granted, and with his mother’s latest shocking experience, the expected event had finally  occurred. Just a little closer to home than he had thought, is all. “Are you sure it’s him?” 

She shook her head side to side as if to say, no, but said, “Yes, I got—” She stammered. “I got close enough to smell him. His brand of cigarettes. He even wore the same plaid shirt I last saw him in.” She finally set down the forgotten coffee cup. “It was him…”  

“Then we need to call the police,” John replied. There was strength in his voice now, a sureness that rang more powerful in contrast to his mother’s weak mumblings about the dead. For his father, in a way, was always dead to him. “I’ll report it, hold on.”  

John picked up the phone and dialed 911. The phone rang and rang and each ring that passed was stranger than the last as John wondered if it might go to voicemail. Why weren’t they picking up? Not that he had ever called 911 to know what he should expect, but it was for emergencies, so they should pick up on the first ring or at minimum the second. What if someone was dying, and not just dead?  

Finally the phone clicked. “911, please hold.” Another click.  

Jesus Christ, it wasn’t like they lived in the depths of New Orleans where the police stretched thin across the French Quarter, what the hell was going on? John looked over at his mother, still stricken with… what? Grief? Fright? A daze? She had barely moved, and now that he was calling the authorities, she sat at the kitchen table like she was sitting a million miles away. Like John didn’t exist, or her house, or the town. It was as though the aspects of his father’s dead body was a contagion, and now his mother was sitting there dead in all specifics except fact.  

An assertive gruff voice exploded from the cellphone, and John’s reverie was shattered. “911, what’s your emergency?”  

“Um…” He cleared his throat. “I’d like to report a death.” 

“You mean a body?”  

John hesitated. “Yeah, I guess. I want to report a body.”  

“We know,” the operator said, and then he hung up. John’s cell phone beeped, and he looked at the screen. A one-minute phone call to 911. Did emergency services hang up? Why would they do that? Before John could even begin to parse the details of the interaction, he tapped the green call button on the screen again. The phone rang and this time someone picked up before the first ring was even complete.  

“911, what’s your emergency?” the woman said in a brisk haste that seemed to indicate she had just gotten done with a previous call.  

“Yes,” John said. “I want to report a death.”  

“What’s your address?”  

“No, not here,” John replied. “My mom found… a dead body in the field by the golf course, south of town.”  

The line grew quiet for a moment. A long moment that stretched. John pulled his cellphone away from his face and checked. He was still connected. “Hello,” he said.  

“We know,” the operator said. “It’s been reported.”  

“It’s been reported?” John almost stammered. “Why hasn’t anyone got him then?” 

“Sir, we are in the process of attempting to retrieve the body, it’s just…”  She trailed off.  

“Just what?” 

“We haven’t been able to get any officer or paramedic to get it—”  

“I don’t understand. It’s Monday morning, where is everyone?”  

“No,” she replied, and her voice grew low, as though she were telling secrets of the emergency system that she knew she should not be telling. “Everyone we send refuses to get the body. They come back… hollow, that’s the only way I can describe it. We’ve had four resignations this morning.”  

“What does that mean?” John asked.  

She sighed. “It means, we’re working as hard as we can to bring a solution to the problem, Sir. Please bear with us.”  

“Ma’am,” John returned, “I understand you guys are having issues this morning, but that’s my father’s body out there and it needs to be recovered… please.”  

She sighed again. “You didn’t see the body, did you?”  

He looked at his mother, entranced, frozen, lifeless except for the subtle rising of her shoulders every time she breathed. “No, my mother did.”  

“Yes, well, we are receiving differing reports of the identity of the body,” the operator said. “But please give me your father’s name and a brief description and I will pass it along.”  

“His name is Johnathan Clarke,” John said, “and, hold on I’ll get a description—”  John quickly muted the phone. “Mom! Mom! What did Dad look like? The body?” 

“Your father…” His mom slowly shook her head. “Like the love of my life, like the moment before he decided to leave.” She started to sob, soft at first, then growing until her hands needed to cradle her face.  

John hesitated, then unmuted the phone. “I don’t have a description.”  

“I know,” she exhaled. “Just stay away from the scene and the authorities will sort this out.”  

“But you said—”  

The operator hung up.  

John pulled the phone away and stared at it. None of this made sense. They knew about the body and haven’t picked it up yet, or couldn’t pick it up? That’s bullshit, John quickly decided. The first operator hung up on him and the second fed him some line about how hard it was. He knew it was Monday, but damn, just do the fucking job. And then he looked at his  unmoved mother, and an inpatient anger grew inside him. An anger that always followed fear when everything was still unknown but growing ordinary and comfortable. Although that wasn’t entirely it; more, he was angry that—after not lifting a finger to help him and his mother for  twenty years, not being there for his grandson’s funeral—it was falling on John to go take care of his father. Worse, his body. The leftovers. The trash he left behind as he went to a better place. Somehow John always knew it would come to this. The inevitability of death bringing all  possibilities to one precipice. The body. His body. A one-sided reunion.  

“I’m going out,” John finally said after staring at his mother’s shocked impotency. “I’m going to figure this out, get him to the hospital or morgue or wherever.” For John didn’t exactly know where he would need to take his father. Too gone for the hospital but too fresh for the funeral home. The police probably didn’t need John’s statement. Did they need to do an autopsy?  X-rays? On the TV shows the body was the most important object, right behind the murder weapon they always struggled to find. But John had no way to determine how his father died, what should happen next when he had the thing. Where should he put it?  

Enough of that, he decided, once he had the body, he would work out where to go next. Probably just take it down to the police station and ask them. He wouldn’t mind the opportunity to rub their nose in it as well. Look how easy it was. Look how he had swiftly handled the issue when the rest of you were too hungover to do it. John already had a blue tarp and some bungee cords in the back of his truck. It shouldn’t be too bad.  

After slipping on his boots and jacket, John told his mother he’d be back, not that she acknowledged him, her stare seeming to grow more distant and lifeless as the clock counted down the day.  

John drove his pickup up the dirt road, leading to the field behind Jackson Golf Course. The morning was still brisk. The sun was over the horizon but only weakly shining in the  clearness of the sky. And it was quiet. Deathly quiet, John considered as he drove down the rutted dirt road. Even amongst the muttering shocks of his truck, there was a stillness to the air, as if the world practiced a moment of silence for his eventual destination. Though, John  reminded himself it wasn’t a death that he drove to this morning. It was a body. The death had occurred sometime ago. A simple heart attack maybe. Drug deal gone wrong. The mistress’s  husband achieving his revenge. It didn’t really matter, he told himself. The death belonged to his father and now the body was his. Merely a problem of location and possession, he decided. The body would be his, but it needed to be someone else’s. 

As John drove, he crested the hill and slammed his brakes. Jenny Hughes was walking—no, shuffling toward his truck, back toward town. Every Sunday Jenny had found John in church,  and no matter his company or topic of conversation, she would invariably pull his attention toward her. Even at the funeral, when everyone in town hesitated to even look him in the eyes or place their hands of his shoulder for more than a fraction of a moment, Jenny was there, looking him in the eye and holding his hand. John remembered her poise under the weight of his grief, the assurance in her voice that the world would be right one day. But now John saw something else as Jenny Hughes walked away from the field ahead. He saw the lack of everything he ever knew about her.  

John inched forward and steered off the road to miss her shuffling steps that seemed oblivious to his approach. He rolled down his window and the heavy, damp air flooded into the cab. “Hey, Jenny, you okay?” John asked.  

Jenny continued as though John had never spoken. She hugged her body and sort of leaned forward, rocking with each heavy stride. It was like his mother, he thought, terrified to the point that everything about her had fled except her body which carried on by rote impulses. Though his mother had always been a bit… sensitive, seeing Jenny like this, seeing the strongest person he had ever met shaken and shocked, John felt the strength inside his own body diminish.  

“You okay…” John mumbled again as the woman was almost past his truck. She hesitated and finally turned toward him.  

Her eyes. John saw something in her eyes that stole every word from his mouth, from his mind. But it wasn’t just her eyes, it was the skin around her eyes, the crevices of her forehead, the drooping of her cheeks. Every part of her face existed to hold what was in her eyes up as an offering to the outside world. Reflecting on the crystalline surface of the irises was a sadness that now terrified John. It was an infinite sadness. A soul devouring sadness. Something so deep and terrible that the woman who stood in front of him wasn’t a woman at all; she was a husk, filled  completely and dripping with despair. Emptiness personified. There seemed to be nothing left of Jenny Hughes.  

“John?” Jenny whispered, hoarsely, as though it had been some time since she spoke at all. “They left her there, John, just left her like that. Now there’s nothing, nothing that matters anymore.”  

“What?” John replied.  

“I can’t see any reason to go on,” she continued, “I can’t… Don’t go—” She turned from the truck and continued down the hill. For a moment John had to rationalize that she was, in fact, a living person, someone he knew and admired. For the way she looked, the way she walked, he might have confused her for the walking dead.  

John stared at her long after she had left down the hill. He couldn’t explain precisely what about Jenny had disturbed him so, only that she was… absent. The absence was disturbing. John couldn’t shake it, and he suddenly was overwhelmed with reluctance to continue. An infectious halting dread. Why was this happening?  

John finally released the brake and began toward the field ahead, slower this time, no longer in a hurry to get the whole affair over with.  

Once he reached the open field, a popular spot that many people would bring their dogs to for the opportunity of a leashless game of fetch, John turned off his truck and got out, slowly. The silence was still pervasive, more so, and the sound of the truck door slamming shot and echoed around the barren place. There should have been someone here, John considered as he looked around. The usual problem with this place was that you went to find some privacy out here away from town and found anything but. Now, there didn’t seem to be a soul around.  

Then John saw—something—in the distance, hiding in the grass, a head poking just above the tips of the tall prairie stalks. There was more than one. A half-dozen people that seemed to be sitting in the grass? None of them moved or had even acknowledged the sound of his truck or his arrival. They all appeared to be positioned in a circle.  

Transfixed, John slowly walked into the field. A solitary bird broke the stillness of the air and quickly stopped, and the broken silence almost caused him to choke and stumble backward. The one bird made him realize the lack of thousands that usually congregated there. The  deafening sound of him stepping through grass highlighted the absence of dogs and laughter. And the people, sitting in a circle just ahead, did not utter a word or a whisper. No choked sobs or hushed mummers. Nothing. Only the terrifying silence moved around them, and John fought the urge to run with every effort of will he had. He felt an uncanny fear climbing up his throat. Everything was wrong, and that wrongness screamed in the back of his mind: leave, leave, leave. But then John thought of his father, his body, and he rediscovered the marrow-deep contempt that simmered throughout his life. John took a shallow breath and a timid step forward.  

They should have heard him as he approached. They should have turned to meet his  footsteps. But, instead, nobody moved. Gathered in a haphazard circle, a small collection of  people sat surrounding a body, motionless.  

There in the center of the congregation was a body of a small boy. John recognized him immediately. At six years old, laying in the ring of the trampled grass, his son was exactly as he remembered him before the accident. No blood stained on his cheek. No matted hair. Both his eyes were intact. He seemed to be only sleeping as he laid in the grass, legs tangled, arms spread out, Christlike. His boy. His little boy.  

But the shock of seeing his son in the center of a congregation of strangers was replaced by another feeling. An indescribable terror, one that ripped every ounce of agency from his brain. Dead. He was dead. It wasn’t a body, it was death. Suddenly the emptiness that had been living  inside John—a hollow cavern that echoed every action of his life as a meaningless stone—grew, infinitely. Nothing mattered. Nothing changed the inevitable. Fate existed, John realized, had always existed, and it was death. He stared at his son and recognized death’s violence, its despair, the unrelenting depression that was silent as a snake but filled with a savage chaos. His skin felt brittle.  

All around the world seemed to disappear to John’s single-minded focus on what lay ahead of him. Before that day, he had known there was no escaping the reality that everything he did in life amounted to the same result, his death. But staring at his dead son, he realized that death did not come eventually to everyone; death was already there. Nothing mattered because he had died so long ago, and the moments he thought he was living were the infinitesimal gasps that escaped death’s grip. Life was never wasted because life had never existed in the first place.  

John sat down, shoulder to shoulder with the others around him, and he stared at the body, terrified. 

David Riedel

Born and educated in Bosler, Wyoming, David Riedel earned his BA in English from the University of Wyoming and is currently completing his Master’s degree in literature. His fiction often examines the realities of addiction and mental illness inside this strange world we all inhabit. In 2021 he won the Torry Award for his short submission Terrestrial Issues.